Friday, April 29, 2005

Karyn's Istanbul Trip - Days 1 & 2 (April 24-25, 2005)

Istanbul - the most multinational city, the quintessential crossroads of east and west, violent, poetic, melancholy, raucous, fleshy, austere, rapacious, sublime - this seems to me the most fascinating city on earth. - Frances Mayes, from A Year in the World
(Dear Ms. Mayes, I could not agree more).


Well, our trip got off to a strange start. We deplaned and got on a bus to go to the International Arrivals terminal. Some guy got on the bus right before the doors closed and started screaming at the top of his lungs in Turkish. In turn, other people started yelling at him. We were afraid of things getting violent, but fortunately, it seemed the man was just drunk and did us no harm. After we went through passport control and picked up our luggage, one of the men on the bus with us came up to our group and apologized for the drunk man’s behavior. He said that he hoped it didn’t give us a bad impression of Turkey, and the he hopes we enjoy our holiday. He was very nice.

After we found our tour guide, we got on a very nice bus and were taken to our hotel. Dusk was just setting in, and the views of Istanbul were breathtaking. I wish I could’ve gotten pictures, but the sun was setting and they wouldn’t have come out well through the bus windows. Our drive, which lasted about half an hour, took us along the Bosphorus waterfront, past the ancient Roman city wall, Haghia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque. We were completely awestricken – audible gasps and “Oh my God” were heard all around the bus.

We got to our hotel, which was located on a very busy street right along a tram route. We gathered in the bar and were given a welcome drink – only fruit juice, but it was very good and refreshing after our travels. Our tour guide briefly went over our itinerary with us and then we were assigned to our rooms. My room, which I shared with Ruth, was on the 7th floor (actually considered to be the 6th floor, as the 1st floor starts one floor above the lobby) and it was at the back of the hotel, thankfully away from the street noises. However, we could hear the boat horns on the Bosphorus, as our room (if you stood on tiptoes and could see above the cement wall right outside our window) had a view of the water. Our room was very cramped and the two twin beds were pushed together, so we basically shared a king sized bed. Otherwise, it was decorated nicely and served us well over our 4 nights there, except for the beds being hard and the pillows practically non-existent.

Dinner was not covered in the expenses the first night, so a small group of us got together and decided to go in search of eats. The hotel recommended this restaurant a block away call Paşazade, which, if we had known we’d be eating 3 more meals there over the course of the next few days, we would’ve avoided. But the food was good and the ambience was nice. There was a woman there playing some kind of string instrument and singing. I ordered the Turkish cheese plate, which was very good. It came with dried apricots and pecans. It was for two people though, so I shared it with Tina, who just ordered some soup. None of us were very hungry, so we stuck with light meals.

Afterwards, we walked up and down that street and peeked at some of the souvenir shops. I was amazed that the places are open so late. In Germany, most places are closed by 8 pm, usually sooner, but here, souvenir shops are open until about midnight or so. I noticed a lot of feral cats running around…over the course of our trip, I will have seen more stray cats and dogs than I’ve ever seen in any one place in my life. It’s really sad. Most of them seem to get food though…they don’t look starved, just mangy and dirty and scabby.

We had a wake-up call at 7 and showered before going down to the Ottoman Restaurant in the hotel for the complimentary breakfast. The breakfast was unlike anything I’ve ever seen: dried fruits, plain yogurt with condiments (honey and cherry sauce), Turkish cheese, meats, orange and peach juices, Turkish delight (a candy), halva (a dessert that they served for breakfast for some odd reason), eggs, cereals, assorted olives, tomato, cucumber, assorted breads, coffee and tea. Some of that stuff may seem really weird for breakfast, but it was actually really fantastic. I’m starting to really like dried apricots. They’re delicious here.

After breakfast, we met up with our tour guide, Umut, who was a different tour guide than the one we had the night before. That’s okay though. Umut (actually a feminine name that means “hope”) is a 25 year old single Turkish guy who was completely undaunted by taking on 31 women. We were his first group of all women, so he looked forward to it. We found him to be absolutely hilarious and insanely cute, with an infectious laugh and a million watt smile.

The first place he took us was the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in the entire world. It’s known for having 6 minarets, more than any other mosque. The purpose of the minaret, by the way, was for the Muslim clerics to climb up them in the ancient times to call people to prayer. Now they have loudspeakers and don’t need to climb the minarets anymore, but the minarets are great for leading people to the mosques. They are very tall and can be seen for miles.

Anyway, we went to the courtyard of the mosque first, where Umut explained some Muslim customs to us. There were people trying to sell things in the courtyard, and they were all over us the minute we walked in, trying to sell us pashminas (scarves) or other assorted things. This would be just the beginning…people approached us everywhere we went, trying to sell us a variety of junk. It got to be pretty irritating. But soon, Umut led us inside the mosque. We had to take off our shoes first and he said that we should cover our heads if we wanted to, as a mark of respect (most of us did). We sat inside and Umut explained how Muslims pray and he pointed out the areas of the mosque where the women go to pray. And he explained why men and women have to pray separately.

The mosque was absolutely beautiful. The inside was covered with vibrantly painted tiles in a variety of patterns. We saw this type of decoration everywhere in Istanbul. I am now in love with Turkish tile. It’s a beautiful art form.

After the mosque, we walked a short distance to Topkapi Palace, home of former sultans and their harems. On the way there, a man in a fancy costume with a big teapot strapped to his shoulder blocked our way and insisted on pouring us tea. His costume was so fantastic and his way of pouring the tea so interesting, that many of us stopped to take his picture and accept the offered tea. It was cold apple tea, very delicious. And then, of course, he asked us for money. I gave him one euro (I hadn’t had a chance to get lira at that point, but they accept euros and American money), which was satisfactory for him. Others didn’t have euro coins and gave him 10 euro bills, to which he gave back liras, and they only found out later that they were ripped off (some of them paid as much as 6 lira – about $4 or so – for a small cup of tea).

Before we got to the palace, we were also distracted by the sight of a young man balancing a big slab of “Turkish pretzels” on his head, so we had to stop and take pictures of that too.

Anyway, we finally got to the palace, and Umut had to get into a long line to buy our tickets, so we waited in a nice little park out in the sunshine and enjoyed the weather. We finally got into the palace, but no pictures were allowed to be taken inside. So I got a few on the palace grounds. The palace is so massive that we couldn’t see it all. So I chose to see the mosque (with reliquaries of Muhammed, such as his foot print and some of the hairs from his beard), and I took a look at the sultans’ jewels and costumes – some of them hundreds of years old.

It was while we were there that I heard the call to prayer for the first time, and it completely freaked me out. At 5:30 am, 1 pm, 5 pm, 8 pm, and 10 pm, the cleric at each mosque gets on the loudspeaker and starts this long, mournful wail in Arabic (I think) that lasts for several minutes. And since there are 2,853 mosques in Istanbul, you hear this EVERYWHERE. It was completely creepy and unnerving, and now that I’m back in Germany, I don’t miss hearing it one bit. It sounded like someone being slowly tortured. Some people in my group found it haunting and beautiful though.

After our visit to the palace, we returned to Paşazade for lunch (the restaurant is owned by the hotel where we stayed, so it’s no wonder we ate there so much). We all had the same menu: some kind of soup, a flaky pastry with cheese, a chicken stew with rice and French fries, and halva for dessert. I thought it was very good, but nothing about it (except the pastry and halva) struck me as being particularly Turkish.

After lunch, we walked up this giant hill (Istanbul is very hilly) to a Turkish rug showroom, where we were given a demonstration on how Turkish rugs are made, the varieties of rugs, and the meanings behind some of the designs. The rugs were beautiful, especially the silk ones, and we were allowed to feel them and walk all over them. The showroom people also treated us to some more delicious apple tea (hot this time). The silk rugs are really cool because you can throw them up in the air and spin them around, and they instantly change color – from light blue to dark blue, from yellow to cream, etc. It was fascinating. Anyway, after the demonstration, the salespeople descended on us like vultures, trying to sell us the rugs. After I managed to get one of the salesmen to leave me alone (he was trying desperately hard to get a sale), I snuck out of there as quickly as I could. Umut pointed out where we could get lira, and he pointed us to the Grand Bazaar just down the street, and told us to meet him back at the hotel at 8:30.

The Grand Bazaar was both cool and very frightening for me. It’s contained inside an old mosque and there are over 4,000 shops, most of which sell similar items. The merchants stand outside their shops and try to tempt you to come in. Many of them do this by flirting, “Hey lady, you are so beautiful. Come and see what I have.” One of the shopkeepers actually proposed marriage! I told him I was already married, and he said he didn’t care. I learned that I have to pretend not to hear them when they’re speaking to me. I couldn’t point at anything in the shops that I thought was pretty, nor could I linger long enough to look at something, or the merchant would be all over me. I couldn’t make eye contact with them either (they think western women are easy and if you look them in the eye, they think it’s an invitation for sex). I wanted to get a peasant blouse and I saw several that I liked, but I was turned off by the salesmen because they kept trying to touch me and provoke me to look at them. They were just too pushy and it made me uncomfortable. Ultimately, I walked out of there with a wedding gift for Marcus and Emily, but even though I haggled over the price, I still think I probably paid too much. And I got a cute woven sunglasses case that looks like a Turkish rug…at least that was cheap. I learned too late that the best prices are outside of the Grand Bazaar. But at least I got better at haggling as I did more shopping.

We met up with Umut at 8:30 to go once again to Paşazade for dinner. He informed us that there was some misunderstanding and that only the last night’s dinner was covered in our expenses (in addition to all the breakfasts and lunches). So some of us were pretty angry about that, myself included. It was not Umut’s fault though, as he didn’t organize our trip. He was just the tour guide, doing what he was told. Some people decided to eat elsewhere, but those who stayed were evidently treated to music and belly dancing. Even the restaurant patrons got up and belly danced. I was actually worn out and feeling a little nauseous when we got to the restaurant, so I left and went back to the hotel for the rest of the night, to rest a little and to read. I think I just had sensory overload.

Pictures here

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